My Livescribe Pulse smartpen has arrived! The Pulse is notable for recording both what you write on paper, and the ambient audio at the time of writing. It links these two streams of data together so that you may recall the audio at the point of writing by clicking on a word or scribble on the page. The software does much more, however.
This little gem is a marvel of miniaturization, with not only a camera embedded in the tip, but also a tiny organic light emitting diode (OLED) display, a speaker, and microphone. The unit is about the size of a cigar, but is very lightweight. Included are headphones with stereo microphones attached for a stereoscopic recording experience, and a complex slipcase to keep it together. The pen is only supported on Windows XP or Windows Vista at this time – although Livescribe mentions on their forums that native Mac OS X software will be released later this year.
To use the pen, you’ll need the Livescribe "dotted" notebook. These notebooks cost about $5 (USD) ordered directly from Livescribe and include 100 sheets of paper. Each page is double-sided, and each page is uniquely coded within the Livescribe "paper universe" which permits the Pulse to identify exactly where it is in the notebook and can uniquely identify each notebook from another. The "universe" is not absolutely unique however, as the patterns are duplicated within a serialized notebook scheme – if you buy two "#1" notebooks, for example, you’ll end up with duplication. There is an "Archive" feature in the Pulse software which permits you to separate duplicate notebooks by locking the content in the older notebook.
When recording with the pen, you can optionally record audio. This is primarily useful when recording notes in a lecture or presentation, and the unit has over 80 hours of recording time using stereo audio making it possible to record a tremendous amount of data before requiring a memory purge. The stereo audio feature is remarkable in that the headphones contain microphones to record audio spatially, to provide an immersive experience on playback. Charge time is about 2.5 hours according to Livescribe’s knowledgebase – but no word on run time before a recharge.
Once you’re ready to unload that data into your PC, you’ll attach a small cradle to the USB port. Launch the Livescribe Desktop application, and the pen immediately downloads its memory to your PC. Pages appear against a virtual notebook, providing a clear copy of your handwriting. Text associated with an audio recording is highlighted in green, and clicking the green text will play back the audio track at the point where the handwriting was recorded. Conversely, you may elect to play back the audio track and observe the handwriting highlighted as the text and audio "play back" in synchrony.
One exceptionally useful feature of downloaded pages enables text searching of your notes. Through handwriting recognition, the Livescribe Desktop software permits you to type in a word and have the results highlighted in your actual handwriting on the page. At this time, the recognition engine does not provide text output for word processing – only this limited search feature, but I’m pleased with the results.
Another benefit of the Livescribe product is the ability to upload your pages to their online community. This may be of the most use to students sharing classroom notes with one another, but also represents a creative opportunity to share narrated line-art "movies" with others. In fact, several contributors have done just that. You can elect to share your pages with the public, or with a limited group of friends. The full utility of this feature will become clearer in time.
There are three other interesting applications loaded inside the Pulse smartpen. One, a calculator, works with a pre-printed calculator panel in the front of the notebook. The calculator provides basic functions and displays the results on the tiny display. A future software release for the pen claims to offer advanced financial and scientific functions. A second feature, of dubious practical value, is a piano that is drawn on the paper and "played" by tapping the virtual keys. While interesting to tinker with, it’s a clever example of what one might do with a "virtual control panel" when some clever developers get their hands on the software developer kit (hopefully forthcoming, but not announced that I know of.) Lastly, a demo "translator" reads your handwriting and speaks the corresponding word in Spanish, Mandarin, or one of a few other languages. As I understand it, a fuller featured translator application is in the works for sale later in the year. Considering the Pulse as an application platform takes it beyond the realm of a mere recording device and enables a variety of interactive options (provided the function and result can be accomplished within the pen itself – there are no wireless communication features on this device.)
As with any fresh product in the tech market, there are a number of undesirable limitations. First, the pen is not supported on Mac at this time. My primary applications reside on Mac, and I prefer to leave my data there. Livescribe has mentioned in the forums to expect a Mac release later in 2008.
Another limitation is the drivers and application are only compatible with 32-bit Windows XP or 32-bit Windows Vista. One expects this limitation will be overcome shortly as it would affect a growing percentage of the PC market.
Mac users who may choose to work around the PC requirement will find the Pulse drivers are sensitive to virtualization, and I was unable to make the Pulse software work with Windows XP 32-bit under Parallels. Livescribe Forum posters have reported success using a Bootcamp installation of Windows XP, however. Another forum poster mentioned that VMWare Fusion worked successfully with the Pulse. Your mileage may vary, and be careful to consider this if you’re not equipped with a traditional PC.
Finally, one limitation that may or may not cause you concern is the limited number of data export options from the Livescribe Desktop software. At this time, you can print documents, or copy and paste the pages into another application as a graphic. It is not possible (that I can determine) to export the files as searchable PDF documents or as plain text files. These features may be released in the future and there don’t appear to be any insurmountable technical issues – but at this time you’re effectively locking your data into the Livescribe application. Be sure to back-up your computer as well, as the data is stored automatically – rather than being presented as a document that must be saved as you would with a traditional word processor.
Obviously after just two days, the shiny hasn’t worn off, and I haven’t spent any meaningful time trying to do something with the pen outside of a tolerant environment. When you’re in the midst of a classroom or business meeting, and you don’t have time to futz around with the technology – and you need it to simply work is when you find out the real value of an accessory such as this. It looks very promising, and it has a substantial value when it works correctly – specifically that you can carry a very limited amount of technology into a typically hostile space (a classroom, or a conference room) and come out with a rich data collection that will assist you in recalling information and keeping up with an extensive collection of personal notes. Regarding the value proposition, I believe the price point is appropriate (given the type of technology and the lack of competition, I think it is hard to consider the price unreasonable,) if you rely heavily on written notes for your work and tend to rely on paper for permanent storage. Would I buy it again? Absolutely – am I representative of the mass market? No – but I think this is a tool that will appeal first to students with the disposable income to buy it, and later it may migrate into the conference room.
The 1GB edition retails for $149 and the 2GB edition retails for $199. Notebooks will set you back $19.95 for a four-pack. http://www.livescribe.com
- The Pulse requires 32-bit Windows XP or Windows Vista at this time.
- The Pulse does not support Mac OS X at this time (Parallels Virtualization also failed to work for me.)
- The Pulse only works with Livescribe’s "dot" paper.
- The Pulse does not export to formats other than a graphic copy via clipboard, printing, or uploading to Livescribe’s community site.
- The Pulse performs OCR on handwritten text, but does not provide this data to the user as plain text at this time.
- Notebooks are unique within a series (books 1-4 are unique from one another, but someone who has two book 1’s will have to retire one of the two books before beginning to use the new book 1) so you’ll need to be mindful when buying new paper that the dot pattern is either unique in your collection or that you’ve filled up and retired the old duplicate series.
That’s it for now. Things will certainly change with Livescribe’s forthcoming releases, so I’ll update this article when time permits.